A poisoned chalice — South Africa’s never-ending nuclear option
A new book, ‘Nuclear’, is a stunning look inside the massive nuclear power generating deal that has been pushed by Russia and enthusiastically embraced by Jacob Zuma and others. The deal may yet have some life in it despite what would be a crippling cost.
A decade and a half ago, the first tendrils of an apparently unstoppable plan to procure a massive nuclear reactor programme through Rosatom — the Russian atomic power giant — first saw light in South Africa. In the ensuing years, amoeba-like, the size and cost of the plan continued to change, as it gained or lost South African government sponsors, found new backers, and as its sponsors attempted to outmanoeuvre the plan’s opponents.
Unlike television’s A-Team, while the plan has never quite come together, it has never quite died off either, no matter how many times the costs were recalculated, or as its financial and budgetary shape was reimagined. In their new book, Nuclear, co-authors Karyn Maughan and Kirsten Pearson try to come to grips with the many facets of this effort as they detail the bureaucratic infighting that took place over the project.
The proposed plan was kept alive for years, despite the fact that the senior government figures who were the plan’s chief cheerleaders never quite accepted the idea that the plan, if actually implemented, would inevitably grow to where its costs (nuclear energy facilities routinely weigh in with massive cost overruns) would become a major threat to the health of the country’s economy and would destabilise the government budget.
Those top figures in the South African government who were the plan’s proponents declined to take a sharp, gimlet eye to the project. Among other things, they never really tried to see how it would fit into the country’s overall energy needs, just as they never tried to understand how other alternatives to supply electricity would make more financial and managerial sense. In effect, the plan assumed it was a great idea, and then its proponents attempted to work backwards to justify its existence — the opposite of how rational planning for such a gigantic idea should be carried out by the appropriate experts.
In Nuclear, the plan’s sponsors’ real purpose is unveiled. It was to push a massive nuclear plant investment largely to harness such an investment (and all the subsidiary contracts and tenders and chances for the connected to harvest wealth) in the service of some rather dodgy geopolitical goals, rather than an understanding of the nation’s future energy needs. Moreover, the authors work assiduously through South Africa’s political landscape to lay bare the calculations and origins of those geopolitical goals.
Meanwhile, in Andrew Weiss and Eugene Rumer’s study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nuclear Enrichment: Russia’s Ill-Fated Influence Campaign in South Africa, those authors looked at the nuclear deal to answer how Russia figured its own cost-benefit analysis as the would-be seller of the nuclear technology.
Weiss and Rumer write:
“Amid the widespread attention the Kremlin’s recent inroads in Africa have attracted, there has been surprisingly little discussion of South Africa, a country which, for nearly a decade, unquestionably represented Russia’s biggest foreign policy success story on the continent. As relations soared during the ill-starred presidency of Jacob Zuma (2009–2018), the Kremlin sought to wrest a geopolitically significant state out of the West’s orbit and to create a partnership that could serve as a springboard for expanded influence elsewhere in Africa.
“Moscow’s strategy was multifaceted, capitalising on well-established close ties with Zuma, a former African National Congress senior intelligence official with extensive Soviet bloc connections. Russian President Vladimir Putin and other senior officials pursued a series of initiatives, such as the inclusion of South Africa in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) grouping and the launch of ambitious forms of cooperation between state-backed energy interests primarily in the nuclear sector.
“Yet relations were undermined by the Kremlin’s propensity to overreach, to lean too heavily on the legacy of Cold War-era relationships forged with leaders of national liberation movements, and to take advantage of cultures of corruption. The controversy arising from a massive $76-billion nuclear power plant construction deal triggered strong pushback and legal challenges from South Africa’s institutional checks and balances, civil society groups, and independent media.
“Key parts of the Russian national security establishment view civil nuclear power exports as an important tool for projecting influence overseas while creating revenue streams for sustaining intellectual and technical capabilities and vital programs inside Russia itself. Yet such cooperation is often a two-edged sword. On the one hand, costly projects such as the one pushed by Zuma typically make little economic sense for the purchasing country, spurring uncomfortable questions about who stands to benefit. On the other hand, heavily subsidised projects pursued mainly for geopolitical reasons risk saddling Russia’s nuclear power monopoly Rosatom with burdens it can ill afford.
“Meanwhile, in the South African government, negative judgments from professional budget and energy bureaucrats’ analyses were — time and again — brushed aside.”
The most amazing thing about this idea is that, like cinema’s recurrent horror character Freddy Krueger, some version of the plan may yet be back in the picture, that is if the words of the current minister responsible for mineral resources and energy are to be taken seriously. Similar to Weiss and Rumer, Maughan and Pearson argue that support for the plan had its origins in a geopolitical outlook largely shared by the Russian and South African governments, interwoven with a long history of loyalty (or at least warm friendship) to Russia on the part of many senior African National Congress politicians from their associations with the Soviet Union in the Cold War and their own liberation struggle.
In their new book, Maughan and Pearson have traced this shapeshifting monster back to its beginnings, and through strange pathways that put South Africa on the road to embracing a plan that, at its maximum configuration, would build a fleet of nuclear power reactors to generate 9.6 gigawatts of electrical power. That is a great deal of generation capacity — more than the country needs now — even with its current electrical capacity troubles as a result of an apparently unending series of failures at its current conventionally fired power plants — or even for years to come.
Given the project’s roots in geopolitical thinking, this nuclear reactor building programme was never seriously examined by government leaders with real thought about an expanding role for solar or other renewable energy sources, in contrast to the massive cost of the nuclear project.
Even less has there been a serious effort to address the mundane, seemingly thankless, but crucial task of ensuring the country’s coal-fired generating plants work to generate the electrical power of their promised capabilities.
Instead, over the years, the current power plants and — crucially — providing their coal supplies, became, like so much else in the country, fodder for pervasive looting by a favoured few such as the Gupta family and their cronies and hangers-on, the thievery now universally known as State Capture. A sometimes forgotten side element of this ongoing looting was the effort of the Gupta clan to secure control over a uranium mine in order to have a lock on the supply of the crucial raw material needed for nuclear reactors.
As South Africans writing first and foremost for a South African audience, Maughan and Pearson, with a focus somewhat different from the Carnegie study, quite rightly try to get under the hood of Zuma’s thinking about that geopolitical rationale. They begin with what in other circumstances would be the opening moments of an international spy thriller: the rumoured assassination attempt on then president Zuma and how the Russians reportedly rode to the rescue, treating him in Russia to prevent his imminent death. That would certainly accrue serious gratitude.
In Maughan and Pearson’s telling, the rumoured involvement of one of Zuma’s wives in giving him poisoned tea was presumably connected to the idea held by Zuma and his close supporters that Western intelligence agencies were on the surreptitious hunt for a way to do him in because of his long-standing connections with Russia (including a stint of military and intelligence training in the old Soviet Union) and his enthusiasm for improved ties with Russia, as well as for making South Africa the fifth member of the BRIC group. In gratitude for saving him, that would lead to Zuma’s full-throated sponsorship of the nuclear deal, almost regardless of the cost to the nation.
In that spy novel, the very idea of a theatrical, fatal cup of tea might have been an idea suggested along the way by Russians, helping seal the deal after saving him from that rumoured toxin. The cost to the country did not seem to matter all that much, by contrast.
Of course, while we are thinking about spy thrillers, one can’t help but recall Russia’s own documented use of sophisticated toxins in attempts to do away with domestic political opponents (or exiled apostates). There is also the apparent ease with which they could diagnose Zuma’s poisoning, and then have just the appropriate treatment right on hand for just such a thing. And all of this took place, after all, within the narrow time constraints needed to save his life, or at least to allow him to believe that, strengthening already warm feelings towards Russia.
One wonders why Zuma would fly all the way to Russia for treatment when his life presumably hung in the balance, rather than seek immediate attention from among South Africa’s highly skilled doctors — unless the former president and his aides were deathly afraid of allowing local doctors to deal with him for fear of whether they, too, might be compromised. Someone is surely going to be writing all this in a spy novel or screenplay about this whole story — if they are not already doing so.
Maughan and Pearson unravel the many twists and turns in the bureaucratic infighting in, alternately, advocating or blocking the deal. As the authors note, there were casualties. As this nuclear deal kept being pushed forward, a number of veteran bureaucrats specialised in financial and scientific/engineering areas were so traumatised by the affair they left government and the country in despair.
In this saga, one unlikely hero comes into focus, the former minister of energy, Tina Joemat-Pettersson. Over her years in government, she had been sharply criticised for her handling of fishing and forestry affairs. As a result, it may come as a surprise to readers that she was an adept bureaucratic infighter. She apparently skilfully slow-walked any conclusive endorsement of the nuclear programme by her department, thereby allowing it to wither on the vine, at least while she was the minister responsible for endorsing the plan on substantive grounds.
Amazingly, the deal still seems to have some life left in it yet. A recent report in Daily Maverick quoted the current minister responsible for energy affairs, Gwede Mantashe: “ ‘We are going to send out the proposals,’ the minister said, speaking specifically to the issue of nuclear power. Asked about the timing, Mantashe said: ‘The sooner the better … we are going to do it.’ ”
Of course, such enthusiasm must now be tempered by Russia’s current involvement closer to home in a costly war against its neighbour Ukraine, with the consequent strain on Russia’s finances and its growing isolation from international capital markets. Even so, Rosatom has a functioning office in South Africa and, according to their media release, in recent days, a seminar by “leading scientists from the supporting universities of Rosatom” was held for school children and students from South Africa on 31 March.
The purpose of the event was to show students and future applicants the relevance of the challenges facing the nuclear industry, as well as the professional and career potential for talented young people in Africa in the field of nuclear energy. The lectures were organised by the University of Johannesburg, University of Cape Town, Johannesburg Forest Town School, Roosevelt High School, with Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia (PFUR), Tomsk Polytechnic University (TPU), MEPhI, MISIS with the assistance of the State Corporation Rosatom.
“As for the lectures for the students, the experts relying on scientific research and practical experience shared their knowledge and opinion on the most important and urgent issues — prospects of nuclear industry development, use of nuclear technologies in medicine, industry and agriculture, the impact of nuclear industry on the environment and methods to reduce the negative impact on the environment in the world.” Some people never surrender, it seems.
Nuclear is an important book and the depth of the authors’ research — extensive interviews and tracking down obscure reports and other documents — comes through clearly as they trace the complex, convoluted negotiations over the years. If the authors cannot authoritatively explain precisely how Zuma calculated that this nuclear plan became a “must-have” for South Africa, regardless of cost or distortions to the national economy, perhaps the ultimate answer can only be provided by Zuma himself in an unguarded moment. Or, perhaps, it might become clear with full access to the files Rosatom has kept on this deal.
Read this book in tandem with the relevant parts of the Zondo Commission’s findings. Until the final disclosures, there is a great deal to contemplate in this book on the cancer-like impact of State Capture on decision-making in South Africa and the way capturers hoped to gain lucrative contracts for all the wide and costly range of things and services such a deal would generate.
Although this is not a criticism of the authors’ efforts, a volume like this really should have a substantial index, a listing of the many individuals and their positions who figure in this saga, and a detailed organogram showing how the many different organisations and state institutions figured in these negotiations. DM